Knowing the stories of our community helps make positive change
by Lauren Means | photo courtesy Jessica Christie
Religion is a tricky topic in the South. For some in the LGBT+ community, it can be even more challenging. There is an unwritten expectation that you go to church on Sunday, are baptized into your parent’s religion, have a “church” wedding, and raise your kids in the church. So what happens when the institution you are brought up in tells you that you are broken? That you must repent? That you are something that needs to be prayed over and “fixed”?
“Bad theology kills and we need to do a lot of work in this arena to help folks dislodge from religious ideologies that don’t support LGBT+ persons,” said Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza — queer activist, Latinx scholar and public theologian. This was the assessment of the struggle we see often within the LGBT+ community in regards to aligning ones personal identity with their spiritual identity.
These thoughts and feelings are something Henderson-Espinoza has experienced first-hand. In an episode of their podcast “Sacred & Profane,” they mentioned how they were “really scared” about coming out when they were in Chicago for seminary school. When asked about advice for individuals who are afraid or apprehensive about coming out and how they found their strength they said, “Find your people. That’s the best advice I can give to folks. We have got to find our people to support our stories of who we are and who we are becoming.”
Finding Your People
Through their variety of experience in many fields across the country, Henderson-Espinoza has found their people. They were born and raised in San Antonio, attended seminary school in Chicago where they also worked in the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault, completed a doctoral program in Denver, spent time teaching in Berkeley, and is a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. They have seen religion in many forms across the US and had the opportunity to speak in a variety of forums with very diverse groups. “I have enjoyed everywhere I live,” they explained, “and being a mixed-raced Latinx, I endeavor to find the people of color wherever I am living.”
Henderson-Espinoza’s experience in the South, however, echos others of minority groups, “[It] has been fine, for the most part. I’ve had interactions with police that have been fine and interactions where I’ve been asked if I’m a terrorist. My non-binary self has been assaulted in public and has been frightened because the culture of the South isn’t always safe for my body. But, I love the South and for the most part, the South has embraced me.”
Maybe this is why they were driven to be an activist. If you live these interactions, you are best equipped to fight for equality and help others along the way. “My favorite part of being an activist is listening to people’s stories and building community and reaching for the horizon of collective liberation,” says Henderson-Espinoza.
When Activism and Theology Meet
So what is activist theology? According to Henderson-Espinoza, “Activism helps make lasting, social change, and theology, when done well, is an open discourse concerning meaning and value in an ultimate sense.” They add, “it texturizes theology in ways that might make necessary interventions for the sake of justice.” By listening to people’s stories, including our own, we are able to better know ourselves and help make positive changes in our society.
They know, as Spider-Man has taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. And it is not a responsibility taken lightly. Henderson-Espinoza frequently speaks out on situations of injustice and uses their faith and leadership to help mend fences and build bridges. They put their theology into action. This was very visible during the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 when a white supremacist march erupted into violence. Henderson-Espinoza held public witness after the traumatizing event, encouraged leaders in Charlottesville to provide support, and even provided their own pastoral care to anyone who reached out needing support.
In addition to Charlottesville, they note the Occupy Movement and ICE protests were also moments in history that illustrated to them that “we must come together across lines of radical difference to create the kind of world we want to live in.” Henderson-Espinoza also notes, “Being with real people during real moments of pain, lament, and a desire for change is the work of building a community of radical difference.”
Speaking with Dr. Henderson-Espinoza came during the time the United Methodist Church was making their official stance on affirming LGBT+ congregation members and leaders. “The UMC decision continues to ripple through our faith communities. It is unfortunate that the UMC does not affirm LGBT+ persons. I often think that it is this type of theology that creates trauma that takes a lifetime from which to heal,” they said. This is the very topic that takes us back to LGBT+ people and the struggle to align identity with spirituality. “I attended two United Methodist divinity schools and am grateful for the ways that these institutions shaped me and formed me,” said Dr. Henderson-Espinoza. They add, “I am saddened at the outcome and realize that in many ways, the work is just beginning for the UMC.”
If we can learn anything from Dr. Henderson-Espinoza’s journey, it is that it is possible to be true to yourself and that includes your spiritual self. “We must work against ideologies of hate and indifference to create real communities of justice that can create lasting change.”
For more information on Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza and the documentary on their return to the South called The Front Porch, visit https://irobyn.com/.
To learn more about Activist Theology and their deeper discussion between the two, you can preorder their new book, Activist Theology published by Fortress Press, at fortresspress.com/activisttheology.